Saturday, May 13, 2006

Judas Thomas

My flight left at 2am last night, so I am a little tired. It must have been an auspicious day for travel, as the plane was full-- but I managed to sleep- although it was punctuated by a surreal Tamil movie that was showing. Tamal movies are usually insane musicals with a million people dancing violently and singing. There is usually a theme about a young people trying to cope with traditional family values, like arranged marriages-- even if their father is in organized crime.

Before I left for the airport, the new manager that I hired stopped by the office to wish me a good flight and to give me a gift-- the Hindu "bible." He said it might be interesting to read to provide some insight into the work culture. It was interesting to be approached this way-- gently, as he was not trying to convert me. Earlier in the week I was put off by one of the Norwegians that I encountered during my stay who was active in a church that was established by missionaries. I find it offensive to try to convert anyone from what is probably the most peaceful and non-violent religion in the world. For such a crowded and chaotic city, there was no evidence of road rage, or agression. For a city of such stark contrasts, where I carried more than a month's local salary in my wallet as "walking around money" (and where I stood out), I never felt unsafe. There may be some petty crime here and there, and some religous/political conflict from time to time, but it isn't the pressure cooker it could be- despite the huge diversity of religions. And remember, most Hindus are vegetarian out of their respect for the sacredness of all living things - not because an animal type is "unclean." Despite some strange traditions, the superstitions, the marks on their foreheads-- they really have it going on. It seems to work. My only issues that I could perceive were the obsessive marriage arrangements and the tolerance of poverty as being part of ones destiny. But even that- imagine the chaos of a billion people fully acting out the sexual decadence of the west. And despite poverty, it takes very little money to eat, and the climate allows living outdoors-- and the people seemed happy enough, as though they hid some secret non-monetary wealth.

Hindu seems to work for them. These are not savage canibals we are talking about. I wonder how a Hindu views conversion efforts. It seems to carry the implicit judgment that the converter's belief is right and the covertee's is wrong. It seems rather arrogant. Can over a billion people really be that wrong? Gandhi's doctrine of peaceful resistence was incredibly effective. India already has nukes, and no one, except Pakistan, really seems to mind. I guess I am tipping my cards about my own religious beliefs- about accepting other religions without judgment. I am also fascinated with the historical context of religion, the interplay between religion and politics, and they interplay of different religions. All the strange Hindu gods are very fascinating, but I know little about them.

Missionary work goes back a long time in India. St. Thomas the Doubter (the apostle- not that other guy). He is also called Judas Thomas- but not that other Judas either- see why they need scholars for this sort of thing? Anyway, he was actually the first Christian missionary to visit the Chennai area. It is reputed that he was killed on a hill outside the city, and his remains are kept in the St. Thomas basillica in Chennai.

While there is some biblical "evidence" to suggest Thomas visited India, it is largely based in the apocrypha, which is more of a sensationalized set of gospels- like if Fox News were writing scripture. Call it propaganda or entertainment. Thomas liked to perform dramatic miracles and he was obsessed with lust. There were no garden variety "walking on water" or "wine into water" parlor tricks. These were Fox Newsworthy grand miracles that were beyond belief. Like one time, a young man murdered his girlfriend at an inn (maybe a seedy motel) because HE wanted to remain chaste- while she was wanting to have a little more fun. Later, when he took communion from Thomas, he started freaking out, and Thomas knew something was wrong. The kid confessed to the murder and explained his reasoning. Thomas forgave the kid, since his motives were good. They went to the see her body and Thomas prayed and had the kid hold her hand and "poof," she sprung back to life.

You can't go around pulling stunts like that and not attract some attention. Eventually Thomas met the wrong end of a spear because he converted one of the king's wives. I cannot help but wonder the logistics of spending that much time with her that he could convert her, but I have no idea what life was in the 2nd century in India. And although dead, Thomas' bones were still able to perform miracles.

The official catholic church largely debunked the Acts of Thomas as heretical in one of their fancy councils. I can sort of see why. Yhere are other apocryphal Thomas books lumped into the not-ready-for-primetime camp, like the the Gospel of Thomas, which is mostly about a bunch of "sayings" from Jesus. It is like a chick flick-- almost all dialog and very little action. And then there is the strange Book of Thomas the Contender, which thoroughly documents sexual frustration and celibracy (which was a burning theme for Tom). Even in the Acts of Thomas, he interrupts a newly married royal couple in the bedroom on their honeymoon, pre-coiutus to ensure they abstain from consummating their marriage. I am quite sure he was no fun at parties or social gatherings. There is also the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which outlines how precocious Jesus was when he was in school, like making clay birds in class, then bringing them to life. I can only imagine the parent-teacher conferences, or what his classmates must have nicknamed him.

Some consider this entire Thomas in India business to be a controversial deceit played upon the Indians by the first Portugeuse missionaries who gave the city its original name, Madras. Maybe he wasn't in Madras, but I think there is plenty of evidence to suggest he was poking around the country. My guess is that his bizarre and violent miracles, the raising of the dead, taking confessions from talking donkeys, and his kidnapping of virgins probably created enough negative publicity that martydom was inevitable-- wherever that was.

One good thing about Christianity in India, however, is that it has provided Indian names that I can pronounce, like David or John. Some Hindus have also woven Jesus into their belief system- and most seem to acknowledge that he was a pretty cool guy who stood for some good values. I have even seen surreal Hindu-styled Jesus statues. Too bad he surrounded himself with such weirdos- like this Judas Thomas guy that Jesus called his "twin".

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